Archive for the ‘Hormesis’ Category

Hormesis and the limbic brain

Posted 02 Jan 2012 — by Todd
Category Health, Hormesis, Psychology

There is a powerful way to re-program your brain that has been largely overlooked.  A way to change your relationship with eating, sleep, sex and basic emotions like fear, love and aggression.  While cognitive therapies can modify behavior, they are of questionable help in altering these basic drives.

Our drives are largely governed by two small primitive brain structures, the hypothalamus and the amygdala — shown in red in the drawing at right.  Remarkably, these two tiny structures are respectively the size of a pea and an almond — representing less than 1% of the brain’s three pounds of neural matter. Together, they constitute the control center of the paleomammalian brain–the “limbic” brain that governs our basic urges and desires as well as our homeostatic “set points” for temperature, sleep, body fat and behavioral urges like sex drive and aggression.

You can attempt to change your behavior by conscious determination and cognitive therapies.  But most attempts at intentional change are temporary and are doomed to fail in the long term because they are strongly resisted by powerful homeostatic processes encoded in our limbic brain.  Modern medicine recognizes the importance of homeostatic drives, and has developed pharmaceuticals to override them with diet pills, sleeping pills and antidepressants.  In fact, these medications do shift the balance of neurotransmitters and neural activity — at least in the short term.  But such chemical interventions are short-sighted “crutches” that promote dependency and come with side effects.  Often they exhibit  a “tolerance” effect: the brain’s control system fights back and weakens the impact of the medication.  To maintain the benefit, doses are increased, but this strategy may not always work.

This article will explain how the hypothalamus and amygdala contribute to the regulation of basic drives like eating, sleeping and sexuality, and how the amygdala can actually override the hypothalamus by enhancing the reward value of foods and other stimuli. (As I will explain, however, my take on “food reward” is different from that of Stephan Guyenet and other advocates of the Food Reward Hypothesis). This dual-control model can help explain anomalies such as obesity, addiction, and disordered sleep.

Finally,  I will provide suggestions on effective and natural ways to re-program the hypothalamus and amygdala and change your homeostatic set points, using the principle of hormesis.

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Voluntary stress

Posted 22 Sep 2011 — by Todd
Category Hormesis, Psychology, Stoicism

When does stress help you and when does it hurt you? There is no doubt that stresses of the wrong sort can lead to anxiety, emotional turmoil — and eventually depression and diseases like atherosclerosis and cancer.  Yet a central theme of this blog is that certain stresses are “hormetic”: at the right dose and frequency, stress can actually make you stronger and more resilient.  The many posts on this blog illustrate how stress can be channelled to build muscle, retrain appetite, improve eyesight, strengthen immunity, defeat allergies, and tame addictions and anger.  Judicious exposure to stress can even promote joy and excellent health.

But one can come away from the study of hormesis with the misleading impression that it’s all about adjusting the level and timing of stressors to induce an appropriate adaptive or defensive response.  In this article, I would like to focus on a frequently overlooked ingredient in hormesis:  the role of intention, attitude and voluntary choice.  If you omit this ingredient, you are leaving out an important element of the way that stress helps you become stronger.

Voluntary, deliberate exposure to stress can be particularly effective in providing psychological benefits, including overcoming anxieties, obsessions and phobias, and vanquishing appetite cravings, addictions. Beyond overcoming such self-defeating tendencies, deliberate exposure works to unleash confidence and generate a sense of joy and accomplishment.

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Get stronger using stress oscillation

Posted 14 Aug 2011 — by Todd
Category Diet, Fitness, Health, Hormesis

How much weight lifting or other exercise is optimal for fitness?  What is the right amount of carbohydrate restriction or fasting for sustained weight loss and health? What level of exposure to allergens will reduce allergies? How many hours of sun tanning is healthy? How frequently should plus lenses be worn to reduce myopia?  Do I need to take cold showers every day to get their benefit? How much stress is enough — and how much is too much?

Many of the questions I get on this website and the forums are of this type.  People understand the general concept of hormesis, namely that exposure to controlled amounts of stress can be beneficial, because it elicits beneficial adaptive responses in the organism.  They understand that weight lifting builds muscles, and that intermittent fasting and calorie reduction can be healthful. But too much of any stressor — weight lifting, caloric restriction, sunlight, allergens  — can have adverse consequences.  With hormesis, it seems, the Goldilocks principle applies: to get a benefit, the level of stress must be “just right”.  And because it’s so easy to veer into overload, many people seek to avoid even mild stress:  Avoid allergens. Cover up with sunscreen. Eat frequent small meals. Don’t exert yourself. But if you choose this path, you forgo the possible hormetic benefits.

So how do you determine the optimum level and frequency of exposure to a stress?  And how much rest or recovery between exposures is optimal? Read More

A cure for insomnia?

Posted 26 Jun 2011 — by Todd
Category Health, Hormesis

Do you have trouble getting to sleep at night or staying asleep?  About 30% of the adult population reports difficulties initiating sleep, sustaining sleep, or experiencing restful sleep. To deal with these problems, many people resort to medications or some form of supplement. But it now appears that there is an effective way to banish insomnia without the use of chemicals, by simply applying the principles of hormesis.

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Intermittent fasting for health and longevity

Posted 28 May 2011 — by Todd
Category Diet, Health, Hormesis

One of the primary topics covered on this blog is intermittent fasting (IF).  Many approach IF as a diet or weight loss method.  I know from research, personal experience and conversations with others that IF can indeed be an effective way to drop unwanted pounds.  However, viewing IF as merely a new way to diet entirely misses what I believe is the most important reason to pursue it:  the activation of hormetic processes that foster improved health, keep degenerative diseases at bay, and hold out the promise of a longer, more vibrant life.  These benefits are a known consequence of calorie restriction, but intermittent fasting offers a more comfortable and versatile way to reap the benefits of calorie restriction without the sense of deprivation, the loss of lean body mass, and the metabolic risks that have been associated with simple calorie restriction.

It is because I’ve found intermittent fasting to be an attractive practice, both scientifically and personally, that I was so excited to be invited to give a lecture on IF at The 3rd Door, an innovative health and fitness studio, cafe and social center in downtown Palo Alto. The fitness director at The Third Door, Johnny Nguyen, is himself an advocate and practitoner of IF, which he blogs about with great flair and common sense at The Lean Saloon. The talk gave me an opportunity to reframe intermittent fasting in the terms of the philosophy of Hormetism, or applied hormesis that I write about on this blog.  I believe that the framework of hormesis helps to make sense of why IF works, and why it is so much more than a diet.

What follows is a video of my talk on the benefits of intermittent fasting, presented on May 18, 2011 at The 3rd Door.  I would like to thank Dianne Giancarlo and Johnny Nguyen for inviting me to speak, Vaciliki Papademetriou for technical assistance, Francesca Freedman for introducing me to The Third Door, Tom Merson for the still photos and Ken Becker for the masterful video production.

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The case against antioxidants

Posted 13 Mar 2011 — by Todd
Category Diet, Health, Hormesis

Antioxidant supplements are probably ineffective.  They may even be hazardous to your health.

Many people take daily supplements that include antioxidants such as Vitamins A, C, and E; beta carotene, coenzyme Q10, and alpha lipoic acid. I used to be one of them, convinced of the theory that supplementation with antioxidants is an effective way to neutralize harmful free radicals.  These free radicals, also called ROS or “reactive oxygen species”, can cause oxidative damage to cells and organs, and have been implicated in the pathogenesis of degenerative diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’ disease.

However, study after study not only fails to show a consistent benefit, but in many cases documents positive harm from taking antioxidants. While I continue to believe that antioxidant supplementation is helpful in certain isolated cases of acute infection, tissue damage, or a damaged or aged metabolism, for most of us antioxidants are probably worthless. In fact, antioxidant supplements can interfere with and weaken the body’s inherent ability to mount an effective defense against oxidative damage and its contribution toward degenerative diseases.

I’ve resisted this conclusion because I could not make sense of it.  That is…until I came across recent research into the biochemistry and genetic regulation of the antioxidant response element (ARE). Fortunately the ARE provides us with an in-built adaptive stress response that combats oxidative stress and inflammation The ARE makes the need for antioxidants in the diet unnecessary — other than to keep our food fresh. Surprisingly, antioxidant supplements can impair our adaptive stress response.  But there’s much we can do to strengthen this response. Read More

Allergies and hormesis

Posted 25 Feb 2011 — by Todd
Category Health, Hormesis

Do you have allergies? Are you sensitive to certain foods or chemicals?  If so, you are part of an epidemic explosion in the incidence of allergies and sensitivities in the U.S. and Western societies. The allergy epidemic is frequently blamed on the profusion of pollutants and toxic man-made chemicals in modern industrial society.  And the conventional medical approach to dealing with allergies is to avoid exposure to allergens, and to block allergic reactions by using antihistamines.

But there is an alternative explanation and a more effective treatment, consistent with the theory of hormesis.  The explanation is called the hygiene hypothesis and the treatment is called allergen immunotherapy.  I’ll discuss these both shortly, but first let’s look at what is really behind the outbreak of allergies in the modern world. Read More

Learning to fast

Posted 20 Nov 2010 — by Todd
Category Diet, Hormesis

I’m writing this post the week before Thanksgiving, to give you something to think about as you are polishing off that last piece of pie….

One of the most common reactions I get to my advice to try intermittent fasting is:  I could never do that!

Like the Jackson Browne song “Running on Empty,” the word “fasting” often conjures up dire images of starvation and energy deprivation.  Many of you reading this post may have experienced strong hunger pangs, headaches, tiredness, sweating and even shaking or wooziness when going without eating for even part of a day, much less a whole day.  So it is natural to extrapolate such experiences into the thought that going without food for a day, or even several hours, would invariably lead to uncomfortable or even dangerous hypoglycermic symptoms. That, together with the negative image of fasting as something unhealthy or associated with eating disorders, leaves most people pale at the thought of even attempting a short fast.

But I tell you, if you don’t try fasting you are missing out on an enjoyable, incredibly energizing experience that will put you in control of your eating and improve your health, your energy and your outlook.  Many people, myself included, have learned to fast for up to a day or even longer, on a regular basis and without negative repurcussions. Done correctly, short-term fasting is not dangerous, it’s actually health-promoting and greatly helps to retrain your appetite.  If you need to lose weight, the fast helps both in reducing basal insulin and retraining your appetite to be smaller. I’ve written about the benefits of intermittent fasting extensively on this site. Many of the Diet Links listed in the right-hand panel, such as fast-5 and Eat-Stop-Eat, amply document the safety and health benefits of fasting, dispelling the myths about “starvation mode”, slowing of metabolism,  and loss of lean muscle mass.  So I won’t reiterate here the voluminous evidence supporting the benefits of intermittent fasting.  Our bodies are designed to last many days with out food, without great discomfort, and in fact it is beneficial to our health to forgo food periodically. But many of you are asking: Am I really up to this?  How do I get started? Read More

Change your receptors, change your set point

Posted 25 Oct 2010 — by Todd
Category Diet, Fitness, Hormesis

Why is it so hard to make permanent changes to your habits, your health, and your happiness?  Some of the most difficult struggles in life involve losing weight (and keeping it off), overcoming addictions, and recovering from depression. Many diets and therapies deliver great short term results, but the most common pattern appears to be relapse.  It often seems that you are destined to fulfill some biological program — that you are stuck with a high body weight set point or an addictive or depressive personality that cannot be escaped in the long run.

This pessimistic message is prevalent among those who have investigated the track records of the “helping” industries: the weight loss companies, the addiction recovery centers, and the various schools of psychology and psychiatry. Unlike the advocates, those who investigate them often find the results are less than what the practitioners might want you to believe.  In the arena of dieting and weight loss, books such as “The Dieter’s Dilemma” (Bennett and Gurin, 1982), and  “Rethinking Thin”  (Kolata, 2008) echo the original set point theory first propounded by Gordon C. Kennedy in the 1950s; they conclude that your body weight is largely predetermined by a biological set point that is handed to you at birth, plus or minus about ten pounds. I do agree that sustained weight loss cannot be achieved through sheer will power alone, or simply by using diet and exercise in order to create a calorie deficit. Yet, while there is some plausibility to the set point theory, I am convinced that it is wrong because it overlooks some important factors. I’ve already given some of my reasons for my disagreement with set point theory in other posts on this blog (Flavor control diets, How to break through a plateau). But in this post I’ll present some strong evidence for an alternative theory, based on the homeostatic regulation of cellular receptors for hormones and neurotransmitters. This is a variable set point theory which I call the receptor control theory. This theory proposes a mechanism that controls appetite and body weight, as well as regulating the balance of  energy and pleasure in your life. It provides practical tools to lose weight and keep it off, overcome addictions without relapse, and move out of depression into happiness.

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Links to make you think

Posted 15 Aug 2010 — by Todd
Category Diet, Hormesis, Stoicism

This week starts a new feature, where without comment I have linked some selected websites with ideas or accomplishments I think are particularly noteworthy, thought-provoking, or inspiring.  Let me know how you like them and post your comments.  A friend suggested this format, which I have modeled after “Assorted Links” in Seth Roberts’ blog. If this proves to be of interest, I’ll use it periodically.

If you look at all three of these links and don’t get at least one good idea to try next week…please let me know!